Ancient Egyptian neuroscience

The Edwin Smith papyrus is one of the oldest medical texts in the world and is an Ancient Egyptian treatise on surgery, particularly after head injuries. In contains perhaps the first ever recognition that a part of the brain can be linked to a specific function as it describes how someone can be left ‘speechless’ after a penetrating wound to their temple.

The Egyptian tourist board has put the full translation of the document online. It seems to be taken directly from the 1920s translation of James Breasted so the language is a little arcane but case twenty is the one we’re most interested in:

Case Twenty: Instructions concerning a wound in his temple, penetrating to the bone, (and) perforating his temporal bone.

Examination: If thou examinest a man having a wound in his temple, penetrating to the bone, (and) perforating his temporal bone, while his two eyes are blood shot, he discharges blood from both his nostrils, and a little drops; if thou puttest thy fingers on the mouth of that wound (and) he shudder exceedingly; if thou ask of him concerning his malady and he speak not to thee; while copious tears fall from both his eyes, so that he thrusts his hand often to his face that he may wipe both his eyes with the back of his hand as a child does, and knows not that he does so…

Diagnosis: Thou shouldst say concerning him: “One having a wound in his temple, penetrating to the bone, (and) perforating his temporal bone; while he discharges blood from both his nostrils, he suffers with stiffness in his neck, (and) he is speechless. An ailment not to be treated.”

Treatment: Now when thou findest that man speechless, his [relief] shall be sitting; soften his head with grease, (and) pour [milk] into both his ears.

I’m not sure if I’d be too pleased to wake up after a serious brain injury to find someone pouring milk in my ears, but then again, I’m not an Ancient Egyptian.

However, the case seems to be a clear case of a type of speech impairment, aphasia, caused by damage to the temporal lobe.

If you’re interested in some background on the discovery and significance of the papyrus, one of the most important in the history of medicine, there’s an excellent article from a previous incarnation of Neurophilosophy that you shouldn’t miss.

Link to Wikipedia on the Edwin Smith papyrus.
Link to complete translation.
Link to Neurophilosophy on the papyrus.

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